10 Sept 2014

Album Review: The Familiars "Martyred Hearts"

Reviewed by Grey Malkin (The Hare & The Moon)

The Familiars are perhaps not so familiar to you at the present moment but this is due to change very soon with their exceptional and enchanting second album. Essentially a trio consisting of vocalist Joanna Swan, guitarist Tom Conway and violinist Vincent Maltby, the band drink deep from the well of fabled acid folk such as Pentangle, Mellow Candle and Stone Angel. However they also ably cast their own unique and individual spell, adding darker psychedelic colours and textures to create a brilliant and bewitching spook folk. Following their debut 'Cunningfolk' (a collection of acid folk covers and traditional songs) their new release 'Martyred Hearts' is an entirely original work, composed solely by the trio themselves. But what a work; hugely creative, emotive and descriptive, the album stands as a future classic of the genre.

Opener 'Bridge Of Birds' is an ornithological litany on the magic and lore of birds, its delicately picked acoustic guitar interwoven with twinkling xylophone and weeping violin. It’s a pagan place The Familiars are coming from, brimful with the folk traditions of the land and nature. This lends their music a timeless beauty that means that, had I suggested this was a recently rediscovered classic lost 70s psychedelic album, it would seem entirely believable. Influenced both by the writings of fantasy author Barry Hughart and by cautionary ballads such as 'Let No Man Steal Your Thyme', the song narrates the different princedoms and personalities of each wild bird (and hence why their female counterparts should be wary!). 'The Shaming of Agnes Leman' is another cautionary tale perfectly framed by minimal percussion, fiddle, guitar and Swan's expressive and emotive vocals. Agnes Leman was a real character from The Familiars' hometown of Norwich and the story is so confidently and expertly told that I had to double check that this was indeed written by the band and not a genuine Child or ancient traditional ballad. Indeed it is somewhat of a revelation altogether that this is The Familiars first recording of original material as there is a level of skill and ease within the storytelling and playing that gives the impression of a band who have been playing together and honing their craft for years. This certainly bodes well for future Familiars material. '52 Hz Whale' displays another register in Swan's remarkable voice in the tense and ominous introduction before settling into a haze of melancholy beauty with the accompanying acoustic guitars sounding not unlike a chorus of harps. This is music with magic running through it, cast down from the moon. Suitably the tale itself is one of sadness, that of a whale whose song is at 52Hz, effectively meaning it cannot communicate with fellow whales and so is destined to live alone. 'Everso Cross in Newquay' switches pace to a Russian polka stomp, complete with chanted male backing vocals to describe a humorous and twisted tale of complaints and angry Newquay residents regarding a visit to the town in the 1960s by a group of Beatniks. Coming on like an Eastern Tiger Lilies, this is cabaret folk at its best, the blood of Brel beating at its dark heart.

'Sons of Clovis', based on the French legend, is an epic eight minute folk masterpiece. Sounding not unlike ‘Liege and Leif’ era Fairport or classic acid folk act Sourdeline with its tasteful and magisterial backing of hand drum and sweeping violin, this song is the album's centrepiece and standout track. Swan's perfectly phrased and descriptive vocals add genuine drama and emotion to the story of family betrayal and fight for the crown  whilst recorder and guitar add medieval tones and hues. You simply must hear this. 'The Raven and the Vole' is a witchy and gothic tale of based on the 1980s children TV series 'Moondial', adding a hauntological element to the album as well as being a fine exponent of dark, ghostly folk. Deeply melodic but also twisting through some twisted and unsettling nursery rhyme territory, this is yet another classic Familiars track.

The album closes with the title track, a duet between Swan and Conway (Conway's voice being eerily similar to Bert Jansch). It's a song filled with both warmth and sadness, retelling the story of the unfair dismissal of Annie Higdon, headmistress of Burston Village School near Diss, Norfolk in the early twentieth century. Her dismissal led to the longest trade union strike in recorded British history in support of her from pupils and residents alike. The song fully does her tale justice, a beautiful and dignified folk gem filled with strident violin and shimmering, haunting vocals.

The Familiars are undoubtedly set to become a much more well-known name in UK folk, psychedelic circles and amongst those who like their music a touch on the dark side. What they have cooked up in their cauldron here certainly contains magic, wonder and delight. Why not let The Familiars cast their spell; you will not be disappointed. Available now to purchase at the group's Bandcamp page with a physical CD edition planned for later in the year.

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